Friday, August 28, 2015

Tools of the Trade Part 1: The Metronome

If you’ve been reading my blog posts, you’ll know that I often use a clip-on metronome when climbing stairs. Several people have asked about using a metronome and instead of providing a tailored answer to each individual, I figured it would be a good idea to share my experience on my blog*. This post explains the benefits of using a metronome and how to set the appropriate pace.

*In the hope to win a few more metronome converts.

A metronome is any device that produces regular, metrical ticks (beats, clicks, etc.) settable in beats per minute (BPM). Although primarily used by musicians to keep a steady time, metronomes are also used by athletes to keep a steady pace. I find it particularly useful for climbing stairs because unlike running – where strides can be variable – stairs have uniform heights*.

*For those diehard stair snobs: This is generally true in a specific stairwell although you can expect slight variation between individual steps. For example, when I measured the stairwell in One Boston Place, the steps were typically about 7.125 inches tall, but there were a few outliers that measured closer to 7 inches (on the low end) and 7.25 inches (on the high end). This type of variation won’t impact pacing by any meaningful amount. However, there can be significant variation between steps in different stairwells. I’ve raced up buildings with steps as short as 6.75 inches and other buildings with steps as tall as 7.875 inches. This variation will play a role in pacing. More about that later…

My metronome journey started in Boston and to this day I still have nightmares about my first race up the Hancock Tower * where I jack rabbited up the first few floors. They went by so easily and I felt like I was going to utterly crush the race. By the time I hit the 10th floor I was still going fast… but suddenly I wasn’t feeling so strong. My heart rate was at the tipping point and my legs were starting to feel like butter. Soon I was forced to slow down to a more realistic pace. When I reached the 40th floor I was totally cooked… and I still had over 20 floors to go. At one point I even started single stepping (oh the horror!). To this day, I still don’t know how I made it to the top alive.

*Technically this was my 2nd climb, but I consider Boston’s Hancock Tower my first time competing at a high level.

That day I learned that jack rabbiting is the ultimate race killer. My new mantra was “A steady pace wins the race”*.

*I urge you to repeat this mantra several times before setting foot in a stairwell. Srsly.

A few races later, I started dabbling with using a metronome to make sure I didn’t bolt up the first few floors. Fast forward a few years with a couple dozen races under my belt using a metronome and I’m now completely convinced of its efficacy.

Why use a metronome?
The best strategy for doing well in a race – no matter what the discipline (running, rowing, stair climbing, etc.) - is to keep a fairly even splits* throughout the race, potentially going even faster towards the end of a race (i.e. posting negative splits)**. When you apply this concept on a flight of stairs, a metronome is the best way to set and keep a steady pace. Every beat, you take a step.  It’s that simple. Marching to the beat of a metronome***is the poor man’s equivalent of setting the pace on your favorite piece of fancy gym equipment (treadmills, steppers, Stairmasters, etc.).

*The term “splits” means a time or pace through a given portion of a race. For example, let’s say you want to run a 6 minute 1600 meters (about a mile) in 6 minutes. If you break 1600 meters into 4 equal 400 meter parts (e.g. a lap around a 400 meter track) to achieve even splits, you’d want to do each part (or lap) in 1:30. Your splits would be 1:30 at the 400 meter mark (1st lap), 3:00 at the 800 meter mark (2nd lap), and 4:30 at the 1200 meter mark (3rd lap).

** Which explains my mantra: “A steady pace wins the race”. To be clear, this strategy is applicable to any endurance sport, but works best in a time trial format on a uniform course. Fortunately for the sport of stairclimbing, most races are done in a time trial format inside a fairly uniform stairwell.

***Most people can keep a steady beat. Sadly there is a small fraction of the population that find this difficult. If you are part of this population then sadly a metronome may not be very helpful.

As Sproule Love once said: you have to “keep your powder dry” in a race, which means don’t waste all your energy in the beginning of a race.  You have to make sure you have something in reserve for the final few floors. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up not only bonk, but to bonk HARD.
It is beyond the scope of the article to prove why even/negative splits are best, but I’ve raced enough to convince myself that it’s true.

What kind of metronome should you purchase?
I personally use the Seiko DM50 clip-on metronome*. It is very light, portable and easy to use. In fact, I’ve even adjusted the pace while racing! I often clip the metronome to the shoulder of my tank top. This position is close enough to my ear so I can easily hear the metronome even on it softest setting. In my expert opinion, the Seiko DM50 provides excellent value for a fair price.

*Warning: shameless product plug ahead.

If you’d rather use your iPhone as a metronome, there is probably an app for that. Alternatively, you could create (or find) a suitable music file that uses a steady beat. The downside of using a music file is that you can’t adjust the beat on the fly (unless, of course, you have an app for that).

Setting the right pace on your metronome
There are several different methods for setting the right pace on your metronome. There are a variety of factors which can make setting the pace somewhat tricky, so read through each method first before committing to a specific one. I’ve tried to lay out each method in a logical order.

Case #1: Continuous Climbing
A good example of a continuous climb would be on a uniform outdoor staircase. This is the easiest case and it lays the foundation for many of the other methods.

Necessary Variables:
  • Total number of steps
  • Goal Time (in seconds)
Equation #0:  Number of Footfalls = [A] x (# Steps)
A = 1 (when taking one step at a time)
A = 1/2 (when taking two steps at a time)
A = 1/3 (when taking three steps at a time*)


Equation #1: Metronome Pace (BPM) = 60 x (# Footfalls) / (Goal Time)
The “60” factor is the conversion factor from seconds to minutes (i.e. 60 seconds/minute) and the “# Footfalls” term comes directly from Equation #0 above.

Example: if you want to climb a 200 step flight of steps in 100 seconds (e.g. an outdoor staircase) taking two steps at a time, your metronome pace = 60 x (½ x 200)/100 = 60 BPM

Case #2: Regular stairwell with turns (with time goal)
Metronomes are perfect for keeping pace on a single flight of stairs, but unfortunately, most stairwells have a lot of turns which make pace calculations a bit more complicated. First off, turning (while climbing) takes more energy than then climbing midflight steps. Secondly, turns often screw up your footfall pattern. Finally, footfall patterns may differ from person to person.

Someday, I’m going to write a post about different footfall patterns while climbing up various stairwell configurations, but that is beyond the scope of this article. The most important thing to know, however, is that your footfall pattern matters when climbing a stairwell.

Because of turns, we have to scrap equation #0 and figure out the number of footfalls on our own. With this method, we’re going take a single section of the race (say just a single floor or two) and calculate the pace for that section only.

For illustrative purposes, let’s use the same 200 steps we used in the first example with the same goal time of 100 seconds. Let’s further assume that this stairwell is inside a uniform 11 story building (i.e. 10 floors of steps) such that each floor has 20 steps with a mid-flight landing: 10 steps à landing à 10 steps (in shorthand this is written as “10/10”).

Let’s calculate the pace needed to climb a single 10/10 floor.
Goal Time = 100 seconds / 10 floors = 10 seconds per floor
With this 10/10 stairwell configuration, there are two basic footfall patterns.

Case 1: Single stepping the landings (10 footfalls per floor)
Case 2: Double stepping the landings (12 footfalls per floor)

Because the number of footfalls varies, each case will clearly yield a different metronome pace.

Using Equation #2, we get the following paces:

Metronome Pace (case #1) = 60 x 10 footfalls / 10 seconds = 60 BPM*
Metronome Pace (case #2) = 60 x 12 footfalls / 10 seconds = 72 BPM

The key takeaway is that your footfall pattern on the turns makes a huge difference in setting your pace, and knowing is half the battle**.

*Thoughtful readers will realize this is the exact same answer we found using our first method.

**Go, Joe!

Case #3: Pacing from experience (same building)
Often, you may not know the exact number of steps in a building and methods #1 & #2 won’t be of very much use. But maybe you are fortunate enough to be able to practice in or race up a building multiple times. If so, this is the best method for you.

With this method, all you need to do is keep track of your metronome’s pace and race time each time you climb up the building. After each climb, evaluate if you should have used a faster or slower pace and adjust accordingly.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you notice that I always record my pace and finish time. I find that this is probably the most reliable way to figure out the appropriate pace for my next race up the same building. If you ever use a metronome, I urge you to do the same.

The main benefit is that you don’t have to do any fancy calculations. It completely ignores your footfall pattern - which probably doesn’t change much from race to race unless you really focus on it.

The biggest drawback is that it doesn’t help you the first time you climb a building.

Case #4: Pacing from experience (different buildings)
There comes a time when you face a building for the very first time and you have no idea what the stairwell looks like. You can’t rely on methods #1, #2, or #3 to help figure out your pace, so what do you do? Fortunately, there is an app method for that.
Let’s take a look at two different buildings:
  • Building A: The building you’ve never climbed
  • Building B: The building you are very familiar with (you know metronome pace, goal time, & step heights)

Preferably, buildings A & B should be similar in height but it isn’t a show stopper if they aren’t.

First off, you want to figure out your proposed goal time for Building A. I’ve provided a method for doing so in Power Up a Tower: Part 2 (assuming you can estimate the height of the race course). You can also estimate your proposed goal time via other methods as well (e.g. comparing prior race results, etc.). In fact, I encourage you to use all the methods at your disposal. It never hurts to do a sanity check.

Once you have your proposed goal time for Building A, calculate the “percent maximum power” using the graph below (the table is taken from Power Up a Tower: Part 2 in case you are wondering).

Then find the “percent maximum power” for Building B (i.e. the building you are very familiar with).

Your metronome pace for Building A can now be calculated as follows:

Equation #2: PaceA = PaceB x (% Max PowerA/%Max PowerB) x (Step HeightB/Step HeightA)

PaceA and PaceB are your metronome paces (in BPM) for Buildings A and B

Step HeightA and Step HeightB are the typical heights of the steps in building A and B (using either inches or centimeters… just be consistent)

Note: Since you’ve never climbed building A before, I suggest you bring a ruler to the building and measure a few steps on the race course.

Here is a quick example to show what the equation is doing:

Building A has 7.0 inch steps. We predict our goal time to be about 5 minutes (say 30 stories)

Building B has 7.5 inch steps. You can climb it in about 10 minutes (say 55 stories) using a pace of 60 BPM on your metronome.

(% Max PowerA/%Max PowerB) = 67%/64% = 1.05

This positive ratio means you’ll have to use a faster pace (which makes sense because Building A is a shorter race)

(Step HeightB/Step HeightA) = 7.5 / 7.0 = 1.07

This positive ratio means you’ll have to use a faster pace (which makes sense because the steps in Building A are shorter than those in Building B).

Therefore: PaceA = 60 x 1.05 x 1.07 = 67 BPM

This method completely ignores all the turns (which is key to method #2). Instead it assumes you’ll attack Building A pretty much as you would Building B - which is probably a pretty good assumption of the buildings are somewhat similar.

Final Thoughts:
A metronome won’t make you faster - only hard work will do that - but it can help you race smarter.

I recently had to climb up the World Trade Center One in NYC without my metronome* and I did just fine without it. However, I made sure not to go out too fast right at the start of the race – something I learned through practice and regularly using my metronome.

 *stupid security rules 

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